The Power of the Group. Together.

The Power of the Group. Together.

Now with Added Data and Insights Too.

SB Software’s Jed Fraser visits Norfolk to find out more

The aroma of roasting coffee hangs heavy over NVCS (Norfolk Vending and Catering Services) a few miles outside Norwich, on the morning of my visit. It hits me hard as soon as I open the car door, after driving down from Sheffield where SB Software is based.

If I had realised they would be roasting today, I could have turned off the Sat Nav, wound down the window, and just followed my nose once I got close – because the same site is also home to Green Farm Coffee Company.

SB Software have been supporting both businesses – vending and coffee – since February 2020. NVCS actually went live with our management system software just as the pandemic took hold. Twice during my visit they reference the parallel challenges of dealing with the fallout of Covid at the same time as introducing Vendmanager. Both times I simply ask the speaker whether it would have been better or worse without the new system? They agree that having Vendmanager improved things. They don’t even argue the toss.

So, now feels like a good opportunity to visit – enough time has passed (15 months) to get adjusted to both the (latest) requirements of lockdown and the new data-rich ways of running things. And the right way to start is with a fresh brew of Green Farm: I know that fuelling up with premium coffee can only help me in what lies ahead, because NVCS have a reputation to live up to with SBS:

on a sales visit before signing up, they grilled our Phil McGhee (technical) and Robin Turver (business development) over an 8 hour rolling demo to all of the department heads – separately in sequence

during a preliminary video conference myself, I needed two separate monitors (one for Chris Skipper, MD, solo, and the other for a large masked gang sitting together round a table – in reality, this was the NVCS team protected from Covid, but it looked just like the start of a heist movie).

At the outset, it can feel like they “hunt in a pack”. But over the course of my visit I came to see that what they are doing is “leveraging the power of the group.” And that now they are ever more leveraging the power of data – and technology – too.

Read on to find out more.

Chris Skipper

My primary host for the visit is Chris Skipper, Technical & Operations Director. Over that introductory coffee, Chris sets the scene for me.

He is direct and to the point, providing a framework:

“Vendmanager was a big upgrade for us. I am not interested in speculation, I want our decisions to be fact-based. So, today, data is key. High quality, comprehensive data. Fast and accurate. That’s why for us, your Datakey is the new norm.”

He does not plan to drill down into detail with me any more than that. Instead, and even better, he has arranged for me to meet with some of the key people at NVCS who spend significant time with the SBS management systems. But before he leaves, he finds time for one parting shot:

“And never forget that all this is ongoing. Our market has changed markedly over the last 5 years. Inevitably, it will change again.”

Chris Skipper at NVCS today with a Wittenborg 660 tea and coffee machine from the mid to late 60’s: “I worked on this actual machine personally over 28 years ago at a client’s. It offers hot chocolate and soup too - it was the Rolls Royce of its day.”

Andy Skipper

Operations Manager

Andy doesn’t have a heritage vending machine to hand in his office, but he does have photographic evidence of how far his own experience stretches back.

Andy Skipper at age 17 (37 years ago): “This was one of our first customers. And they’re still with us to this day. Now, that makes me proud.”
Andy Skipper today: “You’ve got to know your market.”

Today though, he is more interested in using the map behind his desk to bring his points to bear.

He points repeatedly to that map as he explains to me: “You’ve got to know your market. You’ve got to know your individual customer. And you’ve got to know that things change. Each and every machine is individual. That is why I was against planograms at first – we are not London or Manchester.”

“Then we worked out the right way to make planograms and Vendmanager work for us here at NVCS. And the part that it helps with most? It’s those changes that I mentioned. Now we recognise them earlier and respond better.”

The region that Andy is indicating on the map is large. With customers throughout Norfolk, Suffolk and East Anglia, NVCS territory stretches as far up as Newark and as far down as the edge of London. And it’s not just the distances – the roads themselves are not easy and the traffic is often slowed by agricultural vehicles or holiday makers. It’s 150 miles from Sheffield to Norwich, and I could feel my average speed dropping as I drew closer – without even venturing onto some of the smaller roads.

Then the type of sites has an influence too. There’s a high proportion of food manufacturing and processing. This means that nut-free restrictions for example are sacrosanct – and not just for the products, but the whole van too. With the big retailers running rigorous audits to check on the whole supply chain, compliance is not optional.

“We understand our end users,” Andy continues. “I still use the term blue collar as a shorthand – and they are important to us. We also have a mix of nationalities. We know why a certain brand of crisps is more popular here than in other parts of the country, whereas Coke and Pepsi each have their own sub regions within our patch. And I can tell you that Kinder chocolate bars are never going to be big sellers around here.”

“Remember, I started as an operator 38 years ago myself. These are MY customers. I want to give them what they NEED (sometimes they don’t know that themselves). And now that we have adapted the planograms into the tools that I (and NVCS) want, Vendmanager helps me to do just that.”

Did Andy explain the Coke/Pepsi split to me? Yes. And it made perfect sense – once you know the rationale. Am I going to put it in print here for everyone to read? No. Andy knows where to find me.

Kim Woodhouse and Jason Galleymore


Next I get the chance to talk with two of the NVCS operators who make up Andy’s team, but I needed to be fast. Kim got up at 5am that morning and Jason at 2am, before leaving home at 3am to go on site.

I started with them at 12.30pm, and they weren’t going to hang around. They were calling in to re-stock their vans, and then their next stop was home. And bed.

But it soon became clear that speed – and efficiency – is high on their list of priorities, wherever and whenever:

Jason: “I like Datakey especially because I just go in and plug in – I don’t have to pull every shelf out”.

Kim: “Before Datakey, I just wrote things down on bits of paper, so it is a big improvement.”

Kim had never owned a smart phone before, and freely admits that she didn’t understand the phone itself at the outset – so she even needed training on that, when Vendmanager started.

But she says: “All the training was amazing.” She couldn’t remember the trainer’s name from SBS but she recalls that he was big and Scottish. Our onsite training is delivered by our two technical managers, Phil and/or Martin (who is slim and English).

It was also pleasing to hear both Kim and Jason volunteering unprompted their appreciation of the fact that the SBS phone lines open early – at 6 every workday. Whatever your enquiry, if you are getting up that early to do your own job, you don’t want to be waiting around.

Jason Galleymore and Kim Woodhouse. They were very possessive about those Datakeys they are holding, which save them time.
Kim: “This is MY Datakey”
Jason: “And this is MY Datakey.”

Laura Cahill

Office Manager

Laura’s personal role does not “involve much on the operating side” but her involvement with Vendmanager requires her to wear various different hats, and she has many touch-points with the system throughout a typical day (although she insisted that there is no such thing as a “typical” day) including:

  • site records
  • purchasing
  • brand records
  • and wholesale.

Her comments convey an in-depth understanding of both the how-and-why of the system, and she was generous in sharing her experience and insights:

  • “Numbers don’t lie. I like to listen to people. Then I check the verbal information against the actual data.”
  • “My advice to anyone first embarking on Vendmanager? Set things up correctly. And rigorously. Make sure it’s a real team effort. And feed information up the chain. Quality decisions can only be based on quality input/output.”
  • “I especially appreciate the pricing schemes and the reporting. They’re powerful.”
Laura Cahill: “Numbers don’t lie.”

Throughout, her perspective echoed Chris’ prioritisation (right at the start) of fact-based decisions over speculation:

  • “Some days, I feel like a fixer – making things happen more smoothly. On other days I’m more like the glue, holding or knitting the different parts together. In both scenarios, Vendmanager supplies the data that is required.”
  • “Often I don’t know the answer, but I know where and how to find it out. And usually nowadays, that involves Vendmanager. Yes, it is “just” a software tool, but combined with the right frame of mind, it’s very effective.”

When I asked her for a recent real-life example of putting data to work, she chose KFC crisps. NVCS are running a trial – a chance to test things out – and verify numbers, initially in 29 machines. Then they will “use the data to determine what happens next.”

After that, she is looking forward to doing more on the wholesaling side – I got the feeling that Laura is putting Vendmanager hard to work for NVCS at every opportunity. Good.

David Boden

Service Controller

With 18 years’ experience at the company, Dave oversees the service function.

He explains that NVCS has a large area, and any of the engineers can be sent anywhere within it. This means they may well find themselves visiting new sites. With transport posing challenges additional to those found elsewhere, efficiency and profitability are tightly bound together. So it’s good to hear that Vendmanager helps in:

  • timing and monitoring jobs effectively
  • scheduling engineers tightly
  • handling issues and any complaints meaningfully in a timely manner
  • ensuring jobs are completed (or re-booked if necessary) efficiently
Dave Boden: “Accuracy is now paramount … in order for Vendmanager to fulfil its potential.”

Dave explains: “With Vendmanager, our service has improved, our invoicing is more accurate and we are scheduling things (filter changes for example) so they are better and faster. Vendmanager does what it says it will. It’s not all high tech rocket science. If a filter change is delayed, for example, Vendmanager just sets a new date. That’s simple. But it’s reliable. And effective. And that’s not what we experienced previously.”

“We do have issues with mobile phone signals. That comes with this area. And yes we would like it if our region had better coverage. But again, the solution is as effective as it is straightforward – as long as we are disciplined. We just synch at least twice a day. Once at the start and once at the end.”

“Engineers are busy people, so it’s a good idea to make it simple to do the right thing like this. And the colour coding on the Vendmanager displays is another good example: yellow, white or green, showing each person what the status is in a no-nonsense way. Easy.”

Dave also appreciates that in some areas, NVCS colleagues have needed a change of mindset themselves: “Take stock accuracy for example – it’s a subject at the front of my mind right now, especially as we approach year-end. Accuracy is now paramount – inputting data that is correct and complete, in order for Vendmanager to fulfil its potential. And that will always require attention to detail from us. But you can see the payback in terms of cost effectiveness. And now for example, we have full awareness of the value of (parts) stock sitting on the shelves in our warehouse. Once you know that reliably, you can set about making improvements. Without those kinds of insights, you are almost driving blindfolded.”

David Hurn

Previously Service Manager (and now Genius in Part-Time Residence)

I have heard a lot about David in advance from our own technical specialists at SB Software, who recognise him as a genius because of his expertise and problem-solving skills. They should know. They have not only seen him on the job, they have collaborated together closely.

David does not recall, but our paths have actually crossed previously in Sheffield, when he visited us on a (successful) combined technical mission. While he was dancing geek-to-geek with our technical manager Martin Olivant and his colleagues, I just kept my head down and concentrated on doing some colouring-in without going over the black lines – or that’s how it felt at the time.

With a career that spans over 40 years as a service manager, and 15 of those with NVCS, nowadays David “still comes in 3 days a week, doing a bit of everything” in his own words.

Wary that his background includes “working on non-destructive X rays, worldwide” I ask him for some recent examples related to Vendmanager – in terms accessible to me. That is why David is pictured here with the testing box that he designed and built in-house himself (liaising with SBS staff). He was explaining it in a way that is simple enough for me to understand (at a certain level).

But I already knew the commercial benefits that this box delivered, in terms of time and money saved as well as increased quality and reliability. NVCS built and tested over 700 cables themselves rather than outsourcing – because their solution was better quality and better value. Back in Sheffield we know it as “Project DTS” – we did our bit and NVCS including David did their bit. And it was successful. Because of that combined effort.

David Hurn: “The best thing about SB Software? You don’t treat us like children.”

By now I am out of time, so I bid my farewells. But David’s parting words open up a new line of thought that I take with me, for unpacking later:

“The best thing about SB Software? You don’t treat us like children. Others have tried that. We didn’t like it, and your way is better.”

It’s both a book end and what feels like the opening to future chapters, which I will carry with me back to Sheffield.

Integration in Action

Putting together this report, I needed to be highly selective. That’s fine by me – it was a long, intense day, so distilling things like this can be very useful.

What I find less easy to live with is that presenting things in one sequence, from beginning to end, suggests that there is just one order of things. And that’s not the case. I could have talked with any of these participants in any order, and assembled their contributions in any sequence and still “made sense of it all”. It would be akin to shuffling a deck of cards.

Why? Because all these roles and perspectives from NVCS are integrated. They fit together.

We take pride ourselves at SB Software in delivering integrated product and services – because we know the benefits for clients.

And in Norwich I saw similar integration brought to life. But I had been warned. Remember my preliminary video conference with the “masked gang” that I mentioned right at the outset? Back then I asked them all as a group: “Which of you benefits most from Vendmanager?” Andy replied in a flash: “all of us – it just wouldn’t work otherwise.”

What I had seen as a “pack” at the outset, is in reality more akin to a tribe. And nowadays, they are using SB Software as their data tool to “leverage the power of the group” themselves ever more, to the benefit of NVCS, their customers and the end-users too.

As it says on the vans I pass on my way out, it’s all about “managed refreshment.”

The key clue was there in plain sight, all the time …